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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Amid Bing Hype, Blekko Wants To Be Left Alone

Blekko, a stealth search startup headed by Rich Skrenta, is doing its best Greta Garbo impersonation while getting this sort of "glowing non-coverage" over at Techcrunch.

Like them, I respect the reclusive starlet (sorry, startup's) interest in privacy while they develop the product and the strategy.

In the next couple of weeks I will finally have the time to demo both Bing and Blekko.

But perhaps I can "leak" a couple of ideas I've gleaned from the past year or so of sporadic conversations with Rich.
  • You don't need the blogosphere to tell you, they're pretty serious about this one, and their idea of A-Level Talent doesn't just mean product managers with search engine names attached to their resumes, or business development folks with same. Along with those, they seem particularly focused on attracting high end engineering talent. You'd have guessed that anyway if you looked at the investors who have seeded the company, such as Marc Andreessen (to say nothing of Skrenta himself).
  • Although Screenwork reports they're "happy with the name Blekko," if you were a stealth startup, wouldn't you say that? They'll probably change it.
  • While not speaking directly to Blekko's own functionality, I've found Skrenta's (perhaps offhand) criticisms of search engine innovation in the past couple of years to be very telling. Skrenta told me last summer that users don't really want all these stage-managed "blended" results nearly as much as the major search engines let on. He's also been quoted as saying that PageRank wrecked the web, and implying that Google is out of answers when they begin threatening people with penalties and begging them to use web conventions in the "right way," instead of fixing their algorithms. Let's explore a bit more where these thoughts lead us... Bing may be a quintessential example, but Ask, Cuill, and the major search engines themselves (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft) have all been engaged in an overwrought effort to display search engine results in panes; variegated search results that purportedly guess at 'intent' (sometimes they do a great job); and other bells and whistles that speak to a broadening of the terms of what constitutes 'search' to convince us that search engines need to be good at finding, classifying, ranking, and displaying all 'objects', not just pages of information. "Ten Blue Links" has rapidly become code for "obsolete search engine design". "A page with panes and pics" is code for what "users really want today". Supposedly. Unfortunately, this leaves a gaping hole in what search engines used to do, or try to do: to be really good at providing relevant results for specialized queries, and getting the rank-order right. The fact that you get a bunch of panes and distractions instead of a really relevant list of links to serious content may be seen as some kind of evidence that search engines have given up on their core mission, and are engaged in a massive attempt to change the subject, whether consciously or not. And this kind of overwrought "integrative thinking" has apparently begun to pervade these companies' thought processes on other products. In terms of workflow and productivity, users shouldn't be satisfied with steady efforts to improve upon GMail functionality, integrated calendars, and IM integration (plus a to-do list that is a bland and clunky offering at best)? Instead of perfecting the core functionality, let's change the subject, and invent a new tool that assumes people want to share data and shift modes of communication willy-nilly. Google Sea of Distractions, as it were.
In that spirit, then, will Blekko turn out to be one part Kicking it Old School (no pretty panes, but going back to the fundamentals of serious searches for the right information, and rank-ordering serious results well, in a way that does a better job of keeping spam out without over-rewarding a handful of brands?), and one part Kicking it Up a Notch (soft-innovating in the information retrieval field, and leaving the portal guys to pretty up the planet with panes and pics)? Let's hope so. That would be one of the most noteworthy entry into the "serious consumer" web search space in the past five years. It might even turn out to be the type of search engine a librarian could love again. I'm looking forward to a deep dive... and launch later this year. As the other analysts have implied, maybe this won't be for everyone. What great product is? But the appeal also has to be wide enough to matter, and I hope that's true, too.

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